Sunday, June 17, 2007

Attention and Conciousness

The Wave in the Stream of Consciousness.

The surface of our mental stream is not level, but is broken by a wave which stands above the rest; which is but another way of saying that some one thing is always more prominent in our thought than the rest. Only when we are in a sleepy reverie, or not thinking about much of anything, does the stream approximate a level. At all other times some one object occupies the highest point in our thought, to the more or less complete exclusion of other things which we might think about. A thousand and one objects are possible to our thought at any moment, but all except one thing occupy a secondary place, or are not present to our consciousness at all. They exist on the margin, or else are clear off the8 edge of consciousness, while the one thing occupies the center. We may be reading a fascinating book late at night in a cold room. The charm of the writer, the beauty of the heroine, or the bravery of the hero so occupies the mind that the weary eyes and chattering teeth are unnoticed. Consciousness has piled up in a high wave on the points of interest in the book, and the bodily sensations are for the moment on a much lower level. But let the book grow dull for a moment, and the make-up of the stream changes in a flash. Hero, heroine, or literary style no longer occupies the wave. They forfeit their place, the wave is taken by the bodily sensations, and we are conscious of the smarting eyes and shivering body, while these in turn give way to the next object which occupies the wave. The figures below illustrate these changes.

Consciousness Likened to a Field.

The consciousness of any moment has been less happily likened to a field, in the center of which there is an elevation higher than the surrounding level. This center is where consciousness is piled up on the object which is for the moment foremost in our thought. The other objects of our consciousness are on the margin of the field for the time being, but any of them may the next moment claim the center and drive the former object to the margin, or it may drop entirely out of consciousness. This moment a noble resolve may occupy the center of the field, while a troublesome tooth begets sensations of discomfort which linger dimly on the outskirts of our consciousness; but a shooting pain from the tooth or a random thought crossing the mind, and lo! the tooth holds sway, and the resolve dimly fades to the margin of our consciousness and is gone.

The "Piling Up" of Consciousness is Attention.

This figure is not so true as the one which likens our mind to a stream with its ever onward current answering to the flow of our thought; but whichever figure we employ, the truth remains the same. Our mental energy is always piled up higher at one point than at others. Either because our interest leads us, or because the will dictates, the mind is withdrawn from the thousand and one things we might think about, and directed to this one thing, which for the time occupies chief place. In other words, we attend; for this piling up of consciousness is nothing, after all, but attention.



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